Sunday, April 12, 2009

AussieAlaskan pointed out that it’s been a while since I’ve posted on the blog. In all truth, there hasn’t been much going on to post about. I’ve been at my place of employment, learning how the new computer works (and it works GREAT!), and wallowing in the routine of my job.

Today I’ve had to admit that dog sledding season is over. The parking lot here at my place of employment is now all but bare of snow, and is a field of slush and mud instead. The cover is holding up better in the woods, but it’s shrinking so fast one can almost watch it melting away. Word from home is that the trails there are punchy and slushy and aren’t expected to hold up much longer.

Oh, I might be able to sneak in another run or two if I’m willing to chase snow. I might be able to truck the dogs up to the White Mountains for a run, or perhaps take them on a road trip to Paxson, but the easy days of walking out my front door, hooking up the team, and heading pretty much wherever I wish are done for the season. It’s time to fire up the four-wheeler and the Sacco cart again, run ‘em on wheels while the weather is cool enough to do so safely, and dream the big dreams of next winter.

In the 18th and early 19th century the overall direction of the North American fur-trade was steered by the Montreal based North West Company. With the brain power of predominately English and Scots proprietors and the muscle power and traveling acumen of the French-Canadian and Metiś voyageurs, the Nor’westers relied extensively on dog power. The famous company’s one-word motto was “Perseverance:, and that motto accurately describes the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs kennel this past season.

We got off to a grand start with early season training that progressed more rapidly than ever before. With decent snow cover coming early in the season we jumped up on sleds and I was confident that we would achieve all of our kennel’s training goals and more.

Then came the challenges. In December an infectious illness took nearly all of the working dogs off the trail for nearly my entire R&R. We lost even more precious training time to bitterly cold weather in early January and my required work-related training in February took us off the trail for even more time.

Several of the goals established prior to the season were not achieved. Although we spent lots of time on the trail, we didn’t do nearly so many over-night trips as I had planned nor so many night time runs.

On the other hand, we were able to bring the puppies along very nicely. The puppies enjoyed several short, fun introductory runs that I feel will prepare them very nicely to join the team for more serious training next winter. Having graduated sled dog puppy ‘kindergarten’, I think they will be well prepared for their crucial first season on the team, during which they will learn their trade.

We were also able to give the two-year old leaders in training plenty of opportunities to work up front. Grace, Rose and Nels all had opportunities to work at the front of the team. Of course they all still need work before they’ll be fully qualified, but they are progressing very well and I have lot’s of confidence that our teams will have strong leaders for years to come.

We’ve added two new additions to the Stardancer kennel through the course of the winter. Just is an experienced long-distance racing leader, about the same size and gait as Amazing Grace. This has helped take some of the pressure off our venerable Torus, and allowed us to do more leader training than we would have been able to do otherwise. Abner is only a couple of months older than our litter, and has been running consistently through the winter with Lynn Orbison’s teams. He comes from long-distance racing lines and though a bit on the small side for our team, he’s large enough to do the job and has excellent conformation and attitude.

Gump is being phased into retirement. While he’s always willing to go, he isn’t a particularly strong worker. He’s become a bit of a slacker which is always a liability on a working team. Given the hard life he’s lived, he’s more than earned the right to relax back home in the yard. Torus and Sheenjek aren’t getting any younger, but both of them have been working well throughout the winter and I think they’ll continue to do so into next season. They are both of an age where I’ll need to keep an eye on them, though.

Kennel projects for this summer will mostly be along the lines of maintenance work. I would like to replace the “truck gate” to the kennel to widen the vehicle entrance, thus making it easier to get the truck into and out of the yard. I’ll likely install two more tethering circles, and replace the single whelping house in that pen with two smaller dog houses, so that the pair of dogs in that pen can each have their own houses in which to seek shelter.

The entrance to my feeder trail could also use some work. I’d like to install a permanent ‘drop line’ for easier hook ups, and perhaps move the gate a bit further down the trail to accommodate that project. Although still in the ‘thinking about it’ phase, I’m contemplating converting an older utility trailer that I own into a dog trailer, to ensure that I can move the entire team at once should I ever need to evacuate the kennel due to wildfire or other calamity. It will also make it easier to transport enough dogs and gear for two teams on camping trips or other excursions.

It’s going to be a pretty busy summer, I’m thinking. In May I have my annual firearms training for work, plus two different living history events to attend, a new American Civil War encampment and our long-running Memorial Weekend Rendezvous. ACW is a “new” era to me and I’m not particularly enamored by the “War of Northern Aggression” (yep, my arse is in the north but my roots are from southern soil). I have quite a few friends who are intrigued by that time period, and they deserve my support.

In June I’ll be traveling to Kentucky for a week of work-mandated training (a never ending theme in my life, I’m afraid) and will be home only a couple of days before dashing off to the Delta Bison Range for our annual Alaska State Rendezvous. I can only spend the first weekend at that 10-day event before returning to my place of employment, though.

Thus far I don’t have anything marked on my calendar for the July R&R, though I’m sure that won’t last. That’s probably when I’ll get the most done on my maintenance projects. A fishing trip to Chitina might be a good idea for July, though. Some of those Copper River red salmon would make for some incredibly tasty meals over the course of the next winter.

August will require another trip to Kentucky for clinical training so that I can spend the entire September R&R moose hunting and getting a start on fall training for the team. Like those salmon, a moose in the freezer would go a LONG way toward easing the grocery bills come next year.

October will be the peak of fall training for the team, and I imagine I’ll have a team out on the trail at least for a little while every day of that R&R. In addition to my employer mandated training in November, I’ve been invited to speak at the North American Voyageur Council’s conference in Wisconsin. The Stardancer kennel can use the positive exposure, and besides, that’s just going to be a heck of a lot of fun.

The fact is, my alleged two week on / two off work schedule isn’t exactly what it would seem. With 6 weeks of employer required training every year, which must be done during “my” time, I sometimes find it very difficult to schedule a real life in-between the demands of my employer. It’s frequently frustrating, but then I remember that dogs need kibble and harnesses, equipment needs replaced or repaired, the four-wheeler or snow machine needs fuel, I need to heat my house and buy groceries once in a while.

A full-time, year-round, money-making job is precious in Alaska. Such work isn’t easily acquired, so I guess I’ll keep plugging along, doing the best I can and juggling my schedule around as needed to accomplish as much as I can. Sometimes I just have to remind myself to take on the motto of the historical North West Company. I can accomplish everything I much with a bit of perseverance.

All of that stuff will happen in due time. For now, I’m winding down my two week tour of duty and preparing for this upcoming R&R. Janece Rollet and Lynn Witter are flying up from Kentucky for a visit and to play with dogs. Whether we are mushing on runners or on wheels matters little, so long as we are out on the trails with the dogs. I will of course have an opportunity to endure the pleasure of having my doctor stuff a tube down my gullet to see why my belly has been acting up. I’m really looking forward to that (NOT).

Who knows, maybe it will cool off enough that we can even sneak out for a sled run or two before the snow is entirely gone. Stranger things have happened.

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